Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra Performs Cosmic and Human Music by Haglund and Shostakovich

SwedenSweden Haglund and Shostakovich: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, David Afkham (conductor), Ernst Simon Glaser (cello), Gothenburg Concert Hall, 13.9.2012 (NS)

Tommie Haglund – Cello concerto Flaminis aura
Dimitri Shostakovich – Symphony no. 10

The young German conductor David Afkham first performed with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in 2011, in a concert of Lidholm, Hindemith and Beethoven highly appreciated by both the audience and the critics. This season he returned to conduct a programme combining a 21st-century cello concerto with Shostakovich’s much loved Tenth Symphony.

The Swedish composer Tommie Haglund wrote his cello concerto Flaminis aura in 2001. It was his first work for a full symphony orchestra (his 2005 symphonic poem Hymns to the Night for violin and orchestra will probably be more familiar to non-Swedes as it was released in an acclaimed recording in 2010). After a dissonant, almost tortured, opening the focus quickly moves to the hauntingly beautiful solo cello part. Ernst Simon Glaser played superbly, making his instrument sing even in the less melodic passages. There is certainly something special about this music, which makes me want to explore some of Mr Haglund’s other works (not a reaction I usually have to contemporary classical music).

That said, it is not particularly comfortable music to listen to. Flaminis aura is very serious music, commanding attention not by brash dynamics but by discord and the golden thread of the solo cello part. In my opinion there was something of a gap between the emotional fascination of the solo cello part and orchestral passages that seemed engaging but in a much more intellectual way. The discords in the orchestral parts were very effective but probably overused.

It was not all pain, however. One of the pleasures of listening to Flaminis aura was that it is very original music, sprung from the composer’s imagination with little outside influence. The ending was particularly original and beguiling, as the cello faded into a cosmic silence to the gentle tinkling of bells. The piece benefited not just from an excellent soloist but also from an orchestra and conductor on top form. There were no signs of the all-too-common awkwardness of a symphony orchestra faced with a new and unfamiliar work; on the contrary both the GSO and David Afkham seemed comfortable and gave an excellent performance.

In comparison, Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is much more on the beaten track. Despite the familiarity of the piece this performance was no routine run-through. From the very first bars the GSO’s string sound was dark and vibrant. It was clear that orchestra and conductor had a terrific connection, and Mr Afkham demonstrated a mastery of the score. The orchestral playing was intense, bringing out the human dimension of Shostakovich’s music: the DSCH motif in the final movement (representing the composer) was almost sung, and the second movement (said to be a musical depiction of Stalin) was performed with a passion and savagery that vividly brought to mind that dark period in Russian history.

The musicians also excelled technically. The woodwind section played its very important parts superbly as well as producing flawless solos. Lisa Ford’s horn solos were also superb. David Afkham’s conducting created a sense of forward momentum throughout, and the ironic passages in the third movement still seemed to have dark undertones in the strings, linking that movement to the second and final movement’s drama and power. There could hardly be a better way to spend a September evening in Gothenburg.

Niklas Smith